Bruce Harreld speaks from downtown L.A. about his first day, Iowa athletics and the Rose Bowl.
LOS ANGELES — Bruce Harreld’s first day of work as the University of Iowa’s 21st president wasn’t exactly welcoming.
“To say the least,” the former executive at IBM and Boston Chicken said.
Leading up to and including Harreld’s first official day on Nov. 2, protesters lined areas of the campus to express their disappointment in the university’s hiring of somebody outside academia for the first time since Virgil Hancher in 1940. They stretched a sign reading “NO CONFIDENCE” across his office entrance, a reflection of the UI Faculty and Senate’s no-confidence vote about the hire in September.
But among those who has Harreld’s back in a difficult transition is Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz. Harreld spoke of Ferentz’s influence, character and many aspects of Hawkeye athletics in a Wednesday sit-down interview with The Register two days before Iowa’s appearance in the 102nd Rose Bowl Game here in nearby Pasadena.
“As things happen to me,” Harreld said, “(Ferentz) calls me and boosts me up.”
Ferentz reminded Harreld of his own lack of popularity in December 1998, when Ferentz was selected by then-athletic director Bob Bowlsby to succeed legendary head coach Hayden Fry. A lot of Hawkeye backers lamented the Ferentz hire while they watched a more high-profile choice, former Hawkeye player Bob Stoops, get hired earlier that week to coach Oklahoma.
“Kirk, as he’s watched this introduction to me on campus, he’s reminded about what’s happened to him,” Harreld said. “He said that a couple times. He was not the most popular hire to replace Hayden. So he looks at it and says, ‘I’ve seen this before. And it hurts. So you’ve got to stick with it.’ He gives me a booster shot emotionally.
“He’s steady as a rock, through ups and downs. I was in the locker room after that (Big Ten Championship) loss to Michigan State. What he said to the team was phenomenal. He’s got great values."
In an interview centered exclusively on Hawkeye athletics, Harreld weighed in on several hot-button issues.
TOPIC 1: CHANGE AND SPORTS
Harreld’s first two months on the job, which has an annual salary of $590,000, have taken him to the sidelines of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and soon the Rose Bowl in southern California. He proudly owns a “New Kirk” T-shirt, symbolizing Ferentz’s rebranding of a proven institution, a parallel that Harreld sees in his situation.
Harreld: “People are still trying to figure me out. I’m still trying to figure the rest of the institution out. And I think we need to give each other a chance. I understand where they’re coming from. Change is difficult for all humans. On the other hand, change is critical. That’s how we go one step to the next step to the next step and become greater in life.
“Just like this football team. Last year, they were writing this team off after the last game of the season and then the bowl game. No one thought Kirk or anybody else should come back for the next season. I read all those press reports. Here we are. So let’s just catch a breath. This is part of change.”
TOPIC 2: WHAT THE ROSE BOWL MEANS
Listening to Harreld speak, it’s easy to tell he’s passionate and knowledgeable about sports. He talked with amazement and detail about the end of his second week on the job, when Iowa hosted 40,000-plus fans for an outdoor wrestling dual at Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 14 — one event of six (all victories) in three jam-packed sports days on campus.
Asked (partially in jest) if he cared so much about athletics that he would replace the university’s long-standing logo of the capital dome with a tigerhawk, he replied: “I’m not going to get into wiping out 150 years of history or anything like that. But athletics are really important.”
He also spoke of what it means to the university for Iowa to be selected for the iconic Rose Bowl after falling just short of the College Football Playoff in a 16-13 loss to Michigan State on Dec. 5.
Harreld: “Of course, all of us wanted to win that game. But as soon as that damn last minute played out, everyone was saying, ‘We’ve got to go to the Rose Bowl.’ … I don’t want to mischaracterize this — but it wasn’t like we wanted to lose, but it was like, ‘OK, if we can still go to the Rose Bowl.’ Going to the Rose Bowl, I think, meant more for a lot of people — alums and even I think the team, in many ways — than going to the championship. So this is it. It’ll be the capstone of a remarkable season for these young men.”
University of Iowa football fans turned out for Rose Bowl festivities.
TOPIC 3: CONCERN OVER LAWSUIT, INVESTIGATION?
Amid a wildly successful year in big sports football, basketball, baseball and wrestling, the Iowa athletics department — mainly athletic director Gary Barta — still has the uncertainty of lawsuit and federal investigation hovering over it. At the root of both are claims of alleged gender bias.
The lawsuit filed in November by UI administrator Jane Meyer contends that Barta demoted her a day after filing a written complaint that Barta permitted a culture of gender inequity and allowed staff to make sexist comments during meetings. Meyer was re-assigned from her associate athletics director post in December 2014, four months after her longtime partner, field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, was fired by Barta.
Asked directly if Barta had his full support, the new president replied, “Completely.”
Harreld: “It’s a matter now for litigation. Let the facts come out. It’s unfortunate for all the parties involved, including the university, but no. I don’t have any concern.”
TOPIC 4: HIS MESSAGE TO BARTA
To provide context on an answer about what Harreld tells Barta during this uncertain stretch, he pointed to a letter he got from a fan following Iowa’s road game at Indiana on Nov. 7. The woman was initially alarmed when she found out that she was staying at the Iowa football team hotel, thinking it would be too rowdy for her tastes. But her perception changed after seeing how the Hawkeye players acted.
Harreld: “She said it was a phenomenal experience. ‘They looked me in the eye. They held the elevator door open, let me get on first. They said, "Yes, ma’am." They weren’t loud.’
“What’s my point? This is about the integrity of the team. What I’ve said to Gary and Kirk and all the head coaches and everybody involved in athletics, the way in which you win matters in today’s world. Let’s understand why we’re doing this. Very few of these men and women are going to play professional athletics. … they’re going to have their own lives. We need to prepare them for life. That’s what we do here at the University of Iowa.
“In today’s world, you’re going to always have disputes. The key is, and Gary and I have talked a lot about this, the integrity of what we do. Stand up and do the right things the right way. Clearly, I think you look at our program, you look at the results — not just the winning results — but the academic results, the character of the team.”
The Hawkeye athletic director speaks two days before the Rose Bowl.
TOPIC 5: DOWN-SIZING KINNICK?
The Board of Regents in August approved a three-pronged UI plan, estimated to cost $135 million to $150 million, to renovate the north end zone at Kinnick Stadium, construct a suite-style dormitory near the Iowa Football Performance Center and build a new indoor track west of Finkbine Golf Course.
Harreld emphasized that he wasn’t sure when that project would be financed, although he said plans are in the works that could reduce Kinnick’s capacity (currently 70,585) by 1,700.
Harreld: “We’re still studying it. I’m not going to put the university at risk fiscally to renovate the north end zone. It will happen in due time. Will it happen immediately? No.
“I actually said to our chief financial officer the other day, ‘Where would that money come from?’ Well, we’d probably have to float a bond. And I said, ‘Do we need another bond?’ This happens to be an area where I have some expertise. And he said, 'No, I don’t think we need any more debt right now.' ... And we’re going to lose a few seats in the process of the current plan, 1,700. It’s not like we’re going to ... gain a lot of revenue.
"Does it need to get done? Of course. Are we going to do it immediately? We’ll figure out the right way to do it and the right way to finance it.”
TOPIC 6: ALCOHOL SALES
A growing number of universities around the country have implemented alcohol sales stadium-wide at some sporting events, generating six-figure revenue streams. Harreld said he hadn’t taken a position yet on the topic. Currently, beer and wine are available for purchase only on the suite levels at Kinnick.
Harreld: “I’m not after the dollars. I think we have to look at the safety for the whole community. But I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish about it. … The people who start the argument and discussion for me on that issue, about the revenue, I immediately take it off the table. I don’t think that’s the issue. We don’t need the revenue. And by the way, that area of revenue wouldn’t finance the north end (zone).
“So let’s get our values right. I think that’s what we’re still discussing.”